Charles Francis Adams was born with an advantage that allowed him to become one of the finest historians of his age: He was the son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams.
During his long and successful life, he served as a U.S. congressman and, as a diplomat, helped keep Great Britain out of the Civil War. He edited letters of his grandmother Abigail Adams and 10 editions of John Adams’ diary. He also wrote an autobiography that includes close and personal observations of his father and grandfather.
Those diaries and his later autobiography reveal much about the two presidents.
Both had three sons, with whom they were ridiculously strict and demanding. John Adams later rued his harsh treatment of his sons, and rebuked John Quincy for following his own example. Charles Francis often resented his father’s treatment, and perhaps judged him more harshly than his grandfather because of it.
Of the two, Charles said his grandfather was the more active minded and interesting. “His was a truly inquiring and observing disposition; and, moreover, he had a fairly pronounced taste for social life,” wrote Charles in his autobiography.
“His chief difficulty lay in a tendency to introspection, which was almost morbidly developed by the journalizing habit. His diary was his daily confidant; and he grew to desire no other.”
His father, he wrote, “was built on more rigid and narrower lines. He was even less companionable. He was never the companion of our sports and holidays.”
Charles Francis Adams
Charles Francis Adams, born Aug. 18, 1807, was John Quincy’s youngest son. He started keeping a journal at the age of 13 and maintained it for 60 years. His own son, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., observed, “He took to diary writing early, and he took to it bad.”
John Adams lived in ‘the old house, down the hill,’ in Quincy, while John Quincy’s family lived in ‘the house on the hill’ built by his father two years after he was born.
John used to time the rising and setting of the sun every day. “I can see him standing or sitting, watch in hand, noting the earliest and last rays of the summer day,” wrote his grandson. “There is nothing of that period I more vividly recall. A somewhat solitary man, he was to me, hardly more than a child, an attractive as well as a great one.”
As a father, John Quincy alternated between severity and permissiveness. On the one hand, he expected his sons to have distinguished careers in public service. He criticized their shortcomings and complained they were ‘content with the blast of mediocrity.’ On the other, he paid their debts and, once they grew to manhood, allowed his two eldest sons to drift.
By 1824, it was clear his two brothers would not carry on the family tradition. Charles began to study his father. He wrote in his diary that he was ‘uncommonly eloquent’ and ‘how immeasurably he rises above all others.’ He also found him hard to understand. “He is the only man, I ever saw, whose feelings I could not penetrate almost always, but I can study his countenance for ever and very seldom can find any sure guide by which to move. This is exactly the manner which I wish to obtain…”
As a boy, Charles Francis chafed at having to entertain his grandfather, usually by reading to him. “His curiosity and interest is lost in almost every thing now, few subjects will keep his mind many minutes and it requires a person much more skilled in giving amusement … than I am to amuse him,” wrote Charles.
‘Not a holiday temperament’
To his young grandson, John Adams always seemed to be writing. “I can see him now, seated at his table in the middle of the large east room, which he used as a library, a very old-looking gentleman, with a bald head and white fringe of hair — writing, writing — with a perpetual inkstain on the fore-finger and thumb of the right hand. He was kind and considerate to his grandchildren, and seemed to like to have us in that library of his, walled in with over-loaded bookshelves; but his was not a holiday temperament.”
He took grave, sedate walks, but he never seemed to relax, wrote his grandson. He used to wander alone around the unkempt old farm, with a hatchet and saw in hand, pruning the pear and cherry trees and watching his seedlings. His grandson couldn’t imagine him playful.
John Quincy Adams was much the same.
“Neither of them cared for innocent outdoor amusement, were indifferent to Nature and afflicted with an everlasting sense of work to be accomplished,” wrote Charles. “They were, in a word, by inheritance ingrained Puritans, and no Puritan by nature probably ever was really companionable.”
Charles resented his father’s workaholism. He once took him and his brother John to fish for smelt. Wrote John Quincy Adams: “The weather was charming. I idled away the morning…perhaps this consumption of time is scarcely justifiable; but why not take some of life for simple enjoyments, provided that they interfere with no known duty.”
Hereditarily warped, railed Charles, years later. “He had no conception of the idea that in idling away that soft, kindly September day in companionship with his two boys just home from school, and all close to Nature, he was saving one day at least from utter loss.” That his father had to excuse himself to himself, “even now saddens and irritates me,” wrote Charles.
“I would to-day give much to feel at home on a boat or a bicycle. I have since sailed a great deal, and bicycled somewhat; but it was in both cases too late!”
Charles Francis Adams died on Nov. 21, 1886.
This story was updated in 2022.